Imagine this: mental imagery strengthens neural circuits.

 

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Imagine this: thinking about exercise strengthens your muscles, even if you don’t move an inch.

Mental imagery not only activates the same brain regions as the actual movement but also can speed up the learning of a new skill.

Mental imagery and sports performance

Mental imagery, mental practice, or visualisation is a technique that has been used by sports psychologists for years to improve athletic performance on the playing field. Many successful Olympic athletes, basketball players, golfers, tennis players and other sports people credit the technique for their competitive edge, mental awareness, well-being and confidence

Champion golfer Jack Nicklaus famously said,

 

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.  First I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there; its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing.”

 

Mental imagery strengthens neural circuits

Mental imagery isn’t just for sports stars. Professional musicians commonly rehearse difficult parts of a musical passage by performing the piece of music in their mind. It’s thought that the mental rehearsal activates the same motor, somatosensory, auditory, and emotional circuits as playing the actual instrument.

Surprisingly, visualisation can even strengthen muscles. Simply imaging you’re lifting weights in the gym can increase muscle strength by up to half as much as if you’re actually doing it. The visualising brain sends electrical signals to the muscles, which makes them stronger, even if you’re not moving.

This type of virtual workout is being used by Dr Guang Yue and his team at Kessler Foundation to help improve muscle strength in the people undergoing rehabilitation. Yue says,

 

“Accumulating evidence suggests that mental training without physical or muscle exercise can improve voluntary muscle strength…This finding could have significant application in rehabilitation medicine because numerous weak patients or frail older adults who find it difficult or unsafe to participate in conventional strength training, such as weightlifting programs, may now be able to strengthen their muscles by using their mind.”

 

Internal vs external imagery

Research by Dr Yue and others describes two types of mental imagery: Internal and External.

  • Using internal imagery (also known as kinesthetic or first-person imagery), you’d imagine or mentally create the physical feeling of performing the exercise from within your body.
  • In contrast, using external imagery (or third-person visual imagery), you’d sees or visualise yourself performing the task from outside your body—similar to watching yourself in a movie.

Internal imagery generates significantly more physiological responses such as changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate compared to doing external imagery. Yue’s team have shown that internal rather than external imagery is required to increase muscle strength. Yue says,

 

“We suggest that this process might reinforce the neural circuitry and send stronger signals to the target muscle.”

 

Mental practice in rehabilitation

Because neuroimaging studies have shown the same parts of the brain are activated during mental rehearsal and actual practice, it’s thought that the technique may help recovery from stroke, especially when used to rehearse demanding or complex motor tasks like walking or writing.

A recent meta-analysis of the effect of mental imagery on recovery from stroke conducted by Australian researchers concluded,

 

“Indeed, mental imagery could be a new hope for stroke patients given its benefits of being safe, cost-effective and rendering multiple and unlimited practice opportunities.”

 

Even though mental practice offers a safe and easy way to help preserve and improving performance no amount of visualisation can substitute for physical practice, exercise, or getting out on the course and practising your golf swing. And it is important to keep in mind that, like the real thing, mental training needs to be intensive and repeated over and over again to work.

 

4 Responses to Imagine this: mental imagery strengthens neural circuits.

  1. love reading this information as it supports what Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais taught his students starting his work in the late 1940’s. The Feldenkrais Method is widely know for it’s use of the imagination and gentle movement explorations.
    As a teacher of Awareness Through Movement Classes, (Feldenkrais Method), directed imagery is focused on how we do what we do and our sensations as we do, as well as students creating the sensation of movement before they take action.

    • Great article Doc! I read as I watched my wife working out to Insanity videos and I visualized me doing the same! Ha! I do believe, however, that mental imagery is real and important so I’ll definitely be more consistent with my visualizations from now on! Thanks!

  2. If schooling would just take a moment and allow students to “breathe” – use mental imagery, can you imagine the impact on students’ ability to form strong neural networks for ‘cells’ or ‘co-signs’ or ‘conflict’ or, or, or….!!! The idea of needing prior knowledge as the starting point for learning new ‘stuff’ is a neuro-scientific fact. However, too often the ‘baby connections’ made in the early stages of learning do not have opportunities to become strong and move from working memory to long-term memory. Little wonder schooling can be frustrating for so many.

  3. Excellent article.As a ‘hacker’ at golf I have employed this technique,playing a mental round using a ‘swing timing mantra”,in my case,”guru Chuz”It definitely helps,though still a hacker.Perhaps practice, plus mental visualisation might see a 22 on my card?

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